Music director John "Whip" Wilbur fights to save 101.5 FM

Categories: Media

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John Wilbur, better known to Denver radio listeners as Whip, loves KTNI/101.5 FM, marketed as "Denver's Independent Alternative." In fact, he's so devoted to the smart, highly entertaining station, for which he serves as music director and morning-show host, that he's willing to admit publicly that representatives of 101.5's incoming owner, Virginia Beach-based Max Media, don't really understand the station's unusually adventurous approach and have made it clear that changes will be forthcoming if its audience numbers don't start climbing in the very near future.

Whip, seen here with 101.5 midday air personality Lynne Ryan, hopes he'll be given "six to nine months" to show execs that the outlet is trending in the right direction. Still, there are no guarantees. "They've said, 'If there was another format that was obvious to do in town, we'd do that -- but there's nothing that makes sense right now,'" Whip reveals, adding, "I don't know how long of a commitment that is."

The outlet's journey has already been bumpy. KTNI, along with KONN/107.1 FM, were originally marketed by their owner, the Denver Radio Co., as Martini, which attempted an intergenerational blend of crooners ranging from Frank Sinatra to Norah Jones, and Sassy, a signal formatted with females in mind. But neither scored with the public, leading Denver Radio to file bankruptcy in late 2007. As documented in "Shakeup in Denver Radio," a March 2008 Message column, Martini subsequently transformed itself into One FM, a blend of commercial hip-hop and current hits by artists ranging from Jason Mraz to Pink. As for 101.5, it began tilting in the modern-rock direction even before abandoning the Sassy imagery -- an unwise move that probably led to more confusion than new recruits.

The subsequent decision to re-brand Sassy as 101.5 FM helped give the station an identity -- but the real breakthrough came with the music chosen by Whip. Rather than simply trying to duplicate the playlist employed by KTCL/93.3 FM, 101.5's closest competitor, he focused on picking intriguing stuff that was earning little or no airplay in these parts despite receiving critical acclaim. Among the acts currently receiving the 101.5 spotlight treatment include TV on the Radio, Stereophonics, Eagles of Death Metal, Broken Bottles, Bloc Party, the Knux, the Whigs and Dead Confederate, a recent Westword Q&A and profile subject that Whip says will be playing two anniversary shows for the station later this month.

In addition, 101.5 invited Westword music editor Dave Herrera to create a local-music show: Mile-Hi Fidelity, airs on Wednesdays from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. But that's not the only time Colorado acts can be heard on the station. "We usually have four or five local bands in rotation," Whip points out, noting that tunes by the Swayback have probably been spun more than 400 times. That's a commitment to the scene that's as welcome as it is rare -- and people are noticing. "Oh, my God, you should see the e-mails we get," Whip says. "People talk about how, 'I don't even listen to my iPod anymore. I'd given up on radio, but somehow I found you guys...'"

Even as word of mouth builds, however, 101.5 is facing internal challenges. Due to Denver Radio's debts, which reportedly hit $25 million, 101.5 and One FM wound up in the hands of Guggenheim Corporate Lending LLC, one of the company's lenders. But now, Whip says, Max Media is taking control, with company president Eric Mastel among those making visits. He adds that the firm's representatives are enthusiastic about One FM, hiring a consultant to help shape and refine the station's sound and image -- but they've been unwilling, at least thus far, to invest heavily in 101.5.

"I don't want to make it seem like I'm trashing them," Whip stresses. "They've been great to us. But the owner has basically said we're going to have to either swim or sink. So everything I can do to make the station swim, I'm going to try."

As such, Whip is encouraging everyone within the sound of his voice and the sight of his words to give the station a listen -- and to encourage their family, friends and neighbors to do likewise if they dig what they hear. He's confident that those who do will enjoy the expertise and exuberance of on-air staffers like Ryan and Stefani, and discover loads of new tuneage sure to renew and refresh their fondness for music -- and radio.

"It's the fight of a lifetime," Whip says. "It's us against the world. And I think our owners are going to be stunned by the amazing groundswell of listeners who are tuning in."

The next step is yours -- because only you can make Whip's dream come true.

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